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I Am Fred!!!

What Fred Thompson and "Beowulf" have in common.

11:00 PM, Nov 26, 2007 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IF YOU'RE LIKE most movie lovers, you probably have little idea of how motion capture technology works. You also probably don't care. If you go to a movie that relies on motion capture technology, you likely go to be entertained, and not to marvel at the filmmakers' expertise with this path-breaking new toy.

The new movie version of the Beowulf relies on motion capture technology. Given the talent involved in the film's production, it should have been a serious enterprise. A digitized likeness of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins was central to the plot. Fellow Academy Award recipient Robert Zemeckis directed the thing.

In some ways, Beowulf is a wonder to behold. The movie comes in a 3D version where the 3D effects are stunning. Dodging the assorted arrows and spears that came shooting from the screen gave me the most vigorous aerobic workout I've enjoyed since I became a fulltime writer.

The animated effect of the film, on the other hand, is confusing. Anthony Hopkins' character looked fully human; Robin Wright Penn's looked plastic. John Malkovich's oscillated between looking human and looking plastic. If there were reasons why some of the characters should have looked human and others not, or why some of the action should have looked cartoonish and some like live action, I missed them. Probably the production didn't have enough money to make everything look perfect.

Regardless, the technology often distracted from the movie. Theoretically, the motion capture and 3D technology should have been used to create a moving and thoroughly original movie experience. Instead, the film was a bit like watching a dog walk on two legs--interesting and novel and not without amusement, but ultimately pointless. Yes, the technology was amazing. The movie as a whole was not.

LIKE MOST POLITICAL JUNKIES, I walked out of Beowulf thinking of the Fred Thompson campaign. No, it wasn't because I thought Thompson should consider yelling "I am Fred!" after every answer at tomorrow night's YouTube debate. Like the makers of Beowulf, the people behind the Thompson campaign became overly smitten with a new technology. As the Politico reported last week, they actually thought that Thompson could "YouTube" his way to the nomination.

In addition to creating a verb that the world really doesn't need, the people who came up with this strategy committed the largest and most inexplicable political blunder of the 21st century. The internet is just a tool in a candidate's toolbox, the way motion capture should be just another tool in a filmmaker's toolbox. The internet alone can't make a good campaign any more than motion capture alone can make a good movie. A filmmaker needs good writing, good acting, and good directing to complement the wonders of stop motion and 3D. A campaign needs a strong message, a good messenger, and about a zillion other ways of reaching voters to complement a strong virtual campaign.

The tragedy of the Thompson campaign is that it had the hard parts--a good message and a good candidate. Fred has run a surprisingly substantive campaign. As he pointed out in his heated exchange with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, National Review has saluted him for setting this cycle's gold standard for comprehensively engaging the issues. And Fred is an extremely likable candidate who lacks the baggage that McCain, Huckabee, Giuliani, and Romney all carry to some extent or another.

Future generations of Larry Sabatos will wonder how the Thompson campaign ever became so disoriented that it thought it could run a virtual campaign in lieu of stomping through cow chips in Iowa and coffee shops in New Hampshire. Fred and his team wanted to post acerbic little clips chastising Michael Moore instead of exchanging barbs early on Sunday morning with Tim Russert. And understandably enough. But still, didn't they realize what a small percentage of the American public gathers its news online? Additionally, didn't they pause to consider the fact that even the few, the proud, and the weird who gather their news online would still be more likely swayed by meeting the candidate in a living room than seeing him on a YouTube clip?

Every now and then, the political world needs a reminder of what a small place the blogosphere is. A few months ago, a blogger I very much respect referred to a fellow named Leon Wolf as a rock star. Chances are you've never heard of Leon Wolf, but have heard of several rock stars.

Wolf was Sam Brownback's blog wrangler. Although I've never met him, I have heard from various sources that he's a lovely fellow. But when champions of virtual campaigning are seriously describing the Leon Wolfs of the world as rock stars, they've obviously lost touch with reality.